It was the most Melbourne event of the year, and it startled those who thought they understood the city’s cosmopolitan personality. On a mild Friday morning last October, in the void between the end of the footy season and the start of the Spring Racing Carnival, more than 2000 people packed Melbourne Town Hall on Swanston Street to farewell ABC Radio’s Mornings host Jon Faine.
Every available seat was occupied, while a spillover of local identities, from federal and state politics to music and comedy, stood along the walls and at the back of the auditorium. The venue was in constant motion over the three-and-a-half-hour show, which doubled as a send-off for Faine and his final program.
Members of the audience snuck out of their seats to compliment idols they’d spotted in the crowd and politely ask for selfies. Others shushed the celebrities whenever their chit-chat and backslaps carried across the aisles, distracting from the conversation on stage.
Faine used the first half-hour of the program to interview the state’s leaders, starting with Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews and Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien. They shared the opening slot with former premiers from both major parties: the Liberal Ted Baillieu and Labor’s John Brumby, Steve Bracks and John Cain.
The bipartisan casting set the tone for the morning. Equal parts indulgent and idealistic, this was a celebration of Melbourne’s sense of civic exceptionalism, and its refusal to follow the lead of Sydney’s shock jock culture, where hard sides are always taken and outrage dialled up to 11.
The ratings for the period covering Faine’s farewell show, and the debut of new Mornings host Virginia Trioli, jumped by 10 per cent to almost 400,000 listeners across the week. A further 50,000 streamed the farewell show on mobile devices on the day, making it the biggest live event of the year for all the ABC’s digital capital city radio stations, bigger even than the federal election.
ABC Radio’s Melbourne website traffic also trebled on the day. That said perhaps as much about Melbourne’s disappointment with the federal election result as it did about Faine’s popularity.
Greater Melbourne grew by one million people between 2008 and 2018, pushing its total population past five million.
Later, at a suitably modest after-party, I conducted a small survey of the ABC executives who’d flown down from Sydney for the occasion. Were they surprised by the emotion in the town hall, and would Sydneysiders turn up for a similar event? The consensus was that Richard Glover has an audience as loyal as Faine’s. But they were not sure if he would want to fill Sydney Town Hall, or the Opera House. Either way, it was agreed that Sydney was not in the habit of publicly and effusively sending the living off into retirement.
The most revealing moment in Faine’s Farewell Show came as comedian Sammy J fielded questions from the adoring crowd. At one point, Dan Ziffer, the show’s producer, was allowed a query of his own, and it read the collective pride of the room perfectly.
“Melbourne will soon be Australia’s largest city again. How do we exact revenge?” he asked Faine.
The audience roared in approval. Faine replied without a trace of humility: “Through the quality of our life.”
The rise of Melbourne is shaping up to be the social and economic story of the 21st century, tilting the population south for the first time since the full employment era of the 1960s, when Victoria last dominated the nation’s political life under the government of Robert Menzies. If the trend holds, and the electoral pendulum follows the population, it will force us to change the way we think of ourselves as Australians.
Greater Melbourne grew by one million people between 2008 and 2018, pushing its total population past 5 million as the nation’s crossed 25 million. Sydney added just over 800,000 people over the same period to reach a population of 5.2 million, while Brisbane’s population increased by 450,000 to 2.5 million.
Those raw numbers actually understate the shift. Melbourne is growing at a faster rate than any capital or regional city in the country; faster even than the booming coastal settlements north and south of Brisbane. Gaps that were once thought permanent between Melbourne and Sydney, and between Melbourne and Queensland, are suddenly closing.
A decade ago, Sydney still had 450,000 more people than Melbourne, while Queensland’s advantage was 300,000. This year, Melbourne will be larger than all of Queensland, and barring an economic catastrophe, it should pass Sydney before the end of the 2020s, reclaiming the title of our most populous city, which it last held in 1901. On current trends, the handover will occur around 2026.
Melbourne can more easily add new suburbs to its metropolitan fringe than the landlocked Sydney, and housing remains 22 per cent cheaper.
Melbourne’s population is arguably already larger than Sydney’s, depending on where the boundaries are set. The Australian Bureau of Statistics includes the Central Coast in its definition of Greater Sydney, but leaves Geelong out of its definition of Greater Melbourne. Remove the Central Coast and Melbourne had 75,000 more people than Sydney, according to the latest data for 2018.
Jobs, education, lifestyle and, most importantly, an international reputation as a welcoming city for migrants are Melbourne’s drawcards at the moment. There is also a physical advantage over Sydney that is becoming more important as each city expands. Melbourne can more easily add new suburbs to its metropolitan fringe than the landlocked Sydney, and housing remains 22 per cent cheaper.
Australia has not seen a realignment on this scale since the gold rushes of the 1850s, when wave after wave of colonial and international migration catapulted the upstart Victorian settlement above NSW, and established Melbourne as the largest and richest city in Australia.
Melbourne in that era lorded over its neighbours. This one may not get the chance because the loudest voices in our national life still broadcast from Sydney, and the “quiet Australians” who decide federal elections reside in regional Queensland.
Scott Morrison’s conservative government did not need Melbourne to win the 2019 federal election. The Liberals held just eight of the 25 seats in the city’s metropolitan area, and none in the western or northern suburbs.
But the Melbourne deficit was cancelled by a super majority in Queensland, where the Coalition prevailed in Brisbane and also won 17 of the 19 seats outside the capital. That, in the end, proved to be the difference between a narrow win and the fall of the government.
Pollster and Liberal Party strategist Mark Textor says Melbourne would need to treble in size to 15 million in a national population of 35 million before it could move the political centre south, and leftward. If the city’s values were more aligned with those of the rest of the country, its effect would already be felt at the ballot box. But he thinks Melbourne will remain culturally walled off for the foreseeable future.
The only time Melbourne and Queensland were aligned was in 2007, when Queenslander Kevin Rudd led Labor to federal victory.
Melbourne has been out of step politically since the election of John Howard’s conservative government in 1996. That year, the city gave a majority of seats to Labor, placing it at odds with the rest of the country which delivered a landslide to the Coalition.
In 1999 Melbourne was again an outlier, with 17 out of its 20 electorates voting yes at the republic referendum when 55 per cent of Australians voted to retain the monarchy.
The pattern repeated into the 21st century. Melbourne has voted Labor at every federal election from 2001 to 2019 but the Coalition secured government in five of those seven contests. The only occasion when Melbourne and Queensland were aligned was in 2007, when the Queenslander Kevin Rudd led Labor to federal victory.
Textor notes that the Liberal Party has not been led by a Melburnian since Andrew Peacock in 1990. He recalls federal election campaigns later in the 1990s when he and Liberal Party colleagues would visit Victoria and feel as if they had entered another country.
“We used to joke that we had to bring our passports with us to get them stamped at the border,” he says. One of the things that sets Melbourne apart, he explains, is its strong support for multiculturalism.
One of the big questions for the 2020s is whether Melbourne grows large enough to be more important than Queensland in deciding elections. It gained an extra seat in 2019 through the redistributions of electoral boundaries, and is expected to pick up another for the next federal election, due by 2022.
Melbourne-based historian Chris McConville says the political culture can take decades to reflect an underlying shift in the population. “There is often quite a time lag between demographic change and a city’s hold over the national imagination,” says McConville, a social historian at Victoria University’s college of arts and education.
“Time for both the city and the nation to feel the impact of ideas unrelated to demography. So, for example, Queensland is declining in demographic significance, yet a few small towns on the mid-Queensland coast are still able to shape national debates about energy.
“Interestingly, Ballarat and Bendigo had enormous influence on the move to federation and then on ALP politics. Their influence lasted long after their basic industry in gold mining had declined, and when, demographically, they had little importance.”
Melbourne’s ascension will trigger a series of identity shocks in the 2020s.
The political equation is nonetheless fluid. “At the moment Victoria might look like a bit of an island because of attitudes towards climate policy, same-sex marriage, refugees, reconciliation and generalised ‘wokeness’,” McConville says. “But these things can change and depend on small percentage movements in attitude.
“One hundred years ago, Queensland was the great beacon for social justice and equality. And a progressive Melbourne split the ALP in the 1950s and kept a reactionary DLP [Democratic Labor Party] alive.”
Either way, Melbourne’s ascension will trigger a series of identity shocks in the 2020s. The reason is Melbourne has traditionally led the nation’s big demographic changes. It was the first capital to herald the baby boom after World War II, and the first to predict its end in the 1970s, when the birth rate fell below the replacement level of 2.1 babies per mother – one for her, and one for her partner. Today, it points to a future in which Australia is no longer a majority white nation.
Melbourne is the first Australian city in which the largest ethnic community are migrants born in India, followed by those born in China. Nationally, migrants born in England are still our largest ethnic community, while the Chinese are second and the Indians third.
But Melbourne’s ethnic face, with the Indians first, the Chinese second and the English third, is expected to become the nation’s before the end of the 2020s, as cities and regions increasingly rely on migration for population growth.
The transformation can already be seen when Australia plays India in Test cricket. The Indian team used to draw the smallest crowds of any country when it played Australia in the Boxing Day Test at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. In the 1980s and 1990s, average attendances were just over 100,000 a game, according to figures supplied by cricket statistician Ric Finlay.
Over the past decade, however, the average crowd per Test between Australia and India at the MCG was 187,000, making the Indians the second-largest drawcard after the old enemy, England.
The twist is that the Indians no longer feel like the away team in Melbourne. At the 2018 Boxing Day encounter, the Indian fans, dressed in blue, waving flags and beating drums, matched the Australians in passion. The scene echoed the formative English cricket tours to Melbourne in the 1870s, when colonial spectators took sides by birth.
“The Englishmen, particularly those from the cricketing countries, were eager for the success of their champions,” The Australasian newspaper wrote. But “the Irish, the Scotch and the Australians were burning for their adopted country”.
The skilled migration waves from Asia since 2001, and the cross-currents of internal migration from other parts of Australia, will divide cities and regions between those that continue to attract people, and those that are left behind. It is the combination of the two that gives Melbourne its present edge over Sydney. Melbourne and Sydney receive roughly the same number of migrants from overseas, and there is not that much variation in the number of births minus deaths.
An ageing population and the nation’s most expensive property market has meant Sydney traditionally loses people to interstate migration.
If nothing else happened, Sydney would add about 10,000 more people than Melbourne each year, or about 100,000 over the course of a decade. But Melbourne picks up another 10,000 people on average from interstate each year while Sydney loses almost 20,000 to other parts of Australia, most notably Queensland. That final transaction is what’s boosting Melbourne’s population at the expense of Sydney’s, by about 20,000 a year, or 200,000 over a decade.
The pincer of an ageing population and the nation’s most expensive property market has meant that Sydney traditionally loses people to interstate migration. Politicians have often encouraged the exodus, most notably former NSW premier Bob Carr, who declared Sydney “full” at the turn of the 21st century.
Decentralisation has long been an Australian pipe dream, for poets as well as politicians. Henry Lawson observed the daily squalor and glamour of Sydney’s inner city and grew more alienated with every verse. From his vantage point of street life, there were simply too many people in the one place. “If some of the surplus suburbs of Sydney were shifted up country a few hundred miles, NSW would greatly benefit by the change,” he wrote in 1890.
Australians have resisted repeated calls to populate the bush. The majority of the Australian people already lived in the capital cities by the 1940s, making us one of the most urbanised settlements in the world. Today, the figure is around 68 per cent and it is projected to reach 70 per cent by the end of the decade.
Australia’s leading demographer, Peter McDonald, says migration helps to slow the ageing process. “In general, migrants to Australia are young and have not yet had their children,” says the professor of demography at the University of Melbourne. “They have their children not long afterwards. For Melbourne, because it has a lot of young migrants, both from overseas and from the rest of Australia, it has a lot of births.”
As Melbourne overtakes Sydney, Geelong is expected to return to the top 10 largest cities in the country at the expense of NSW’s Wollongong.
McConville, the historian from Victoria University, warns against assuming the longevity of any demographic trend. “Not so long ago, south-east Queensland was supposedly going to drain rust-belt Melbourne of population and a growing south-east Queensland was going to shape Australia’s future. Well, most of us are still not enjoying rugby league.”
Melbourne’s population boom has spilled over to Geelong, just over an hour’s drive south-west of the capital. Long derided as a sleepy hollow, Victoria’s second city is growing faster than every capital except Melbourne, and every large urban centre apart from the Gold Coast and the Sunshine Coast.
As Melbourne catches and overtakes Sydney, Geelong is expected to return to the top 10 largest cities in the country at the expense of NSW’s Wollongong. Although Geelong is becoming a commuter town for many Melburnians, the main driver of its growth is as a service centre for regional communities to its north and west. The hospital sector is the largest employer in Geelong today.
But travel past Geelong, along the Great Ocean Road to the South Australian border, and Melbourne is no longer a wave lifting its neighbour, but a rip pulling it apart.
While Adelaide is almost as far from Melbourne as Melbourne is from Sydney, it never made the transition to a big city. Adelaide greeted the federation as our third-largest capital but couldn’t hold that position once economic power began drifting north, then west. Brisbane passed Adelaide in the 1940s, and Perth pushed it to fifth place in the 1980s.
Today Adelaide is a capital with the characteristics of a stagnant regional centre. More people depart the city each year for interstate than are added to its population through net natural increase (births minus deaths). Population growth can only come from the overseas migration program and this is where proximity to Melbourne becomes a curse.
Melbourne already receives the lion’s share of the 6000 people who leave Adelaide each year. To keep up with Melbourne, Adelaide needs to break even in the contest for overseas migrants. But of the 90,000-plus who settled in the two cities in 2018, Melbourne took just over 80,000 while Adelaide received just under 11,000. And so Melbourne, a city already almost four times larger than Adelaide to begin with, grew three times as fast in 2018.
The latest official projections for the 2020s has Melbourne reaching six million people before Adelaide hits 1.5 million, and seven million in the next decade before its near-west capital city neighbour gets to 1.6 million.
McConville says Adelaide’s problems are more confronting for the nation than any relative shift between the big cities along the east coast. “The general point is probably that the rest of Australia is being left behind quite rapidly as almost all towns along the east coast expand,” he says. “One long-term change that may be worth noting is the inexorable decline of South Australia’s once influential role. “
Melbourne’s rise and the backlash that threatens from the rest of Australia has been hiding in plain sight for some time now. The cities to the north and west are being subtly remade in Melbourne’s image through copycat infrastructure projects. State politicians used to count the cranes across the city skyline as a measure of progress. Now they are hopping on to newly built trams, although they are now called “light rail vehicles”. The return of trams to Sydney’s CBD, the new lines in Canberra and Newcastle, and the extension of the old Glenelg line in Adelaide through the CBD coincides with Melbourne’s 21st-century revival.
Sydneysiders have only known an Australia in which their capital was No.1. As Paul Keating once put it, “If you are not living in Sydney, you are camping out.” Now Sydney is paying Melbourne the respect of competition. Peter V’landys, the CEO of Racing NSW, has been nibbling at Victoria’s Spring Racing Carnival, adding big-money races to the Sydney calendar to undercut the Caulfield Cup and Victoria Derby. Last year he took his campaign to the next level of provocation, calling for the Melbourne Cup to be moved from the first Tuesday in November to later in the month.
All good sport, but telling nonetheless. Cities that sense their best days are behind them seek validation by poaching major events from other cities. Back in the early 1990s, when Melbourne was written off as a rust-belt economy, then Liberal state premier Jeff Kennett sought to restore confidence in the city by grabbing the Formula One Grand Prix from Adelaide.
This is the familiar pattern of the Melbourne-Sydney rivalry. The larger city pretends to be above parochial point scoring while the smaller one craves attention. In the golden decades of the 19th century, the free migrants who made Melbourne marvellous looked down on Sydney and its convict stock. They compared their settlement, instead, with the cities of Mother England, Europe or the US.
Compliments from international visitors were easy to secure because Melbourne was regarded as one of the richest cities on earth at the time. Mark Twain, for instance, wrote that Melbourne was “equipped with everything that goes to make the great modern city”.
But it was Twain who also observed the great farce of colonial competition on the train journey from Sydney to Melbourne. The bickering governments couldn’t agree to a standard rail gauge to connect the two cities, so they built separate tracks.
The forces that are propelling Melbourne’s population above Sydney’s are actually bringing the two cities closer together.
At Albury, on the NSW-Victorian border, the passengers were herded out of their carriages by lantern light and escorted to another train to complete the 17-hour trip. Twain thought it “the oddest thing, the strangest thing, the most unaccountable marvel that Australia can show”.
He wrote: “Think of the paralysis of intellect that gave that idea birth, imagine the boulder it emerged from, on some petrified legislator’s shoulders.”
Actually, it was a mutual chip on the shoulder. When the two lines were joined in 1881 (apart from the short link over the Murray), the premiers of Victoria and NSW marked the ceremony with an argument over who had completed their section first.
The Victorian premier Graham Berry told his NSW counterpart Henry Parkes that the project would have finished much sooner, and at no cost to Sydney, if “the territory of Victoria had extended as it ought to have done to its proper and natural boundary” on the Murrumbidgee River, not the Murray.
The peak of Melbourne’s cultural and economic power, and its arrogance, came in 1888 when it was chosen over Sydney to commemorate the 100th anniversary of British settlement. But the party ended soon after with the land bust and long economic depression of the 1890s.
Melbourne’s population collapsed by 10 per cent during the crash, allowing Sydney to catch and overtake it by the turn of the 20th century. Pointedly, Sydney, not Melbourne, hosted the ceremony to proclaim Australia’s independence on January 1, 1901.
It was Sydney’s turn to feign indifference to the smaller neighbour. The rivalry was something only Melburnians talked about, while Sydneysiders compared their city with New York and London. The peak of Sydney’s vanity came in 2000 when Juan Antonio Samaranch delivered his closing ceremony stump speech proclaiming that this was the “best Olympics ever”.
Melbourne’s second coming has revived the old boasts about the city’s affluence and the good manners of its people. The Economist magazine’s Intelligence Unit rated Melbourne the world’s most liveable for seven years in a row between 2011 and 2017.
When Melbourne dropped to second place behind Vienna in 2018, the city shrugged. Last year’s survey again placed Melbourne second while Sydney climbed from fifth to third, with only a fraction between the two. The real lesson here is that the differences between Melbourne and Sydney, whether at the margin of lifestyle, or the broader rifts in political and media culture, are no longer Australia’s defining schism.
In Australia, diversity was reflected in the new arrivals who took second spot behind the English.
The forces that are propelling Melbourne’s population above Sydney’s are actually bringing the two cities closer together, and separating them from the rest of the country. The clue is in the diverging ethnic faces of the capitals.
Australia is an unusual migrant nation because of the position of the English as settlers. From the First Fleet to the turn of the 21st century, migrants from England formed the largest ethnic community across the country and in virtually every town and city.
That unbroken Anglo run contrasts with the American experience, where each major migrant wave overtopped the previous one. There have been five dominant groups in the United States: the English, the Irish, and then the Germans in the 19th century, the Italians and the Mexicans in the 20th century.
In Australia, diversity was reflected in the new arrivals who took second spot behind the English. It was the Irish throughout the 19th century; the Scots in the early part of the 20th century; the Italians from the 1950s to the 1980s and the New Zealanders until 2017, when the Chinese replaced them.
All the while, the English were a clear first and their total numbers were more than double the next largest migrant community and more than double Australia’s Indigenous population. In the US, the locally born African-American population was always larger than the dominant migrant group of the era.
Every Australian capital still had the English first in 2001. But that changed once John Howard’s government overhauled the migration program to place a greater emphasis on skills over family reunion. Although the English-born remain our largest ethnic community with almost one million people across the country, four of the eight capitals now have someone else on top.
In Melbourne, as mentioned earlier, it is the Indians. In Sydney it is the Chinese; in Brisbane the New Zealanders; and in Darwin migrants from the Philippines have replaced the English. Canberra is expected to join Melbourne early in this decade with the Indians first. But the English are likely to hang on in Perth, Adelaide and Hobart, while the New Zealanders will remain first in Brisbane for some time to come.
Five of the top seven Asian communities in Australia are over-represented in Sydney and Melbourne.
The splintering in identity is due to the concentration of Indian and Chinese migration to Sydney and Melbourne, and a parallel concentration of New Zealand and English migration to the frontier capitals of Brisbane and Perth.
Most new arrivals will inevitably favour the two largest cities, because that’s where the jobs are. Sydney and Melbourne represent just over 40 per cent of the total population at the moment, and half of all the migrants in the country. But they have welcomed more than 60 per cent of 500,000 Indians and more than 70 per cent of the 500,000 Chinese who have settled here since 2001.
The English population grew by just 60,000 over the same period, and was not in the top 10 of new arrivals. While the English community is ageing – half a million are aged 56 years and over – the Indian and Chinese communities are in the prime of life, each with a median age of around 34 years in 2018. The Indians and the Chinese just need to replicate the growth of the past decade to catch the English before the end of the 2020s.
Today, five of the top seven Asian communities in Australia are over-represented in Sydney and Melbourne while five of the top seven white migrant communities are over-represented in Brisbane and Perth. We have never been here before, with a young Eurasian ethnic face in the south-east, and an older Anglo European ethnic face everywhere else.
We need a new story to bind this disparate nation. The principle argument between Melbourne and Sydney when the six colonies formed the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901 was economic.
Melbourne’s political establishment was for protection, while Sydney’s favoured free trade. The question of identity did not trouble them because the new nation defined itself by the people it excluded. Migration was restricted to whites only, while Indigenous Australians were not counted in the census on the self-serving assumption that theirs was a dying race.
In 1901, the English-born numbered around 350,000 while the Indigenous population was estimated at around 100,000. At the centenary of federation in 2001, the English-born community was still more than twice as large as the Indigenous: there were 930,000 English migrants and 450,000 black locals.
Here is the most interesting identity shock that is coming in the 2020s. The official projections show the Indigenous population will cross one million before the end of the decade due to relatively high birth rates and more people identifying as Indigenous.
As Melbourne passes Queensland, and then Sydney, and as the Indians and Chinese rise to first and second place among the migrant communities, history will be made at the core of our identity. Indigenous Australians will outnumber the English-born for the first time since the 1820s. At that point we can stop pretending we are just a white nation.